Saturday, December 31, 2016


We at SLIFR University are fully aware that most of you are probably settling in for the last few days of a hopefully restful and renewing holiday season, or at least the meaty part of a long three-day weekend meant to celebrate the passing of a spent and stressful old year and the hope (fingers and hearts and minds crossed) of a better one over the 365 days to come. But we also believe in the value of unexpected education, particularly as it pertains to the concept of the pop quiz. And what quiz could pop more unexpectedly than one dropped on the student whose thoughts are conveniently focused on seasonal celebrations at the expense of her or his studies? Can we get a sinister chuckle?

Certainly our esteemed professor of the moment is eminently qualified to bring forth such a noise. It is our honor and privilege to present to you now this latest quiz as administered by its author, SLIFR University’s very own Dean of Philosophical Ethics, Professor James Moriarty. The professor, who reminds his students that of all subjects his own shadowy past is the one that may not be broached during classroom hours (he believes that to be a topic for discussion best suited for private sessions in the his eerie clock tower office perched high above the SLIFR campus), has said that he desires to take us forth into the coming year with our minds set on the lessons of the past year that we can gather from our experiences and apply to the various ethical situations with which we may soon find ourselves faced. But, being the pesky mastermind that he is (evil or merely amoral—you must decide), it may be that he’s just toying with the minds of his students, tossing out matters of trivia meant to distract from those very ethical concerns, all the better to set the traps, academic and otherwise, he has hidden between the lines of his seemingly innocuous syllabus.

The only way to find out for sure is to proceed with the quiz and take your chances. Here’s how the professor demands it be done. Answer each thoroughly, to the best of your abilities, at any length you choose, but remembering that the more verbose the response, the more credit you will receive in the professor’s ledger. And when you answer, be sure to cut and paste the question along with your answer into the comments section so your answer may be more easily understood. Due to current space restrictions on Blogger, you may find it necessarily to post your answers in two or three sections. Or, if you have your own site, feel free to post a link to that location so we can read your answers there.
So, without further delay, let us get under way. The professor waits for no one, especially bleary-eyed students who wish they were anywhere else but at their desks, awaiting further instructions. Number twos up. You may now open your blue books… and begin.


1) Best movie of 2016

2) Worst movie of 2016

3) Best actress of 2016

4) Best actor of 2016

5) What movie from 2016 would you prefer not hearing another word about? Why?

6) Second-favorite Olivier Assayas movie

7) Miriam Hopkins or Kay Francis?

8) What’s the story of your first R-rated movie?

9) What movie from any era that you haven’t yet seen would you be willing to resolve to see before this day next year?

10) Second-favorite Pedro Almodovar movie

11) What movie do you think comes closest to summing up or otherwise addressing the qualities of 2016?

12) Chris Pine or Chris Pratt?

13) Your favorite movie theater, presently or from the past

14) Favorite movie involving a family celebration

15) Second-favorite Paul Schrader movie

16) Ruth Negga or Hayley Atwell?

17) Last three movies you saw, in any format

18) Your first X-rated, or porn movie?

19) Richard Boone or Charles McGraw?

20) Second-favorite Chan-wook Park movie

21) Movie that best encompasses or expresses loneliness

22) What’s your favorite movie to watch with your best friend?

23) Who’s the current actor you most look forward to seeing in 2017?

24) Your New Year’s wish for the movies


Thursday, December 29, 2016


(Image courtesy of Oregon Digital)

This is the only and only photo that I can find of the creaky old Mayflower Theater in Eugene, Oregon. (Surely others exist, right?) The theater was located near the corner of 11th and Alder, and it was situated directly across the street from where the original Animal House was located. The photo dates somewhere in the late fall of 1985, based on the movies listed on the marquee. A few months later, sometime in 1986, the Mayflower would be closed for good. Neither it, nor the dilapidated halfway house that stood in for the home of Delta Tau Chi, stands today, but at least the Delta House got a plaque. No such remembrance was in waiting for this unassuming little dump, never a great technical showcase for cinema, even though this is where Star Wars opened in Eugene in May 1977 and where it played till the end of that same year. But those who were seeing movies in Eugene during the ‘60s and ‘70s undoubtedly have happy memories of it nonetheless. The Mayflower might never have been where you would have chosen to see a movie back in 1977, but given that there wasn’t much in the way of choice it often had to do. Even so, it’ll always be one of the signposts of my own discovering of a world much larger and more exciting than the one in which I grew up.

The first movie I ever saw at the Mayflower was not Star Wars, however. In early 1975 our high school pep band followed the basketball team to the state basketball tournament, and one night a bunch of us hiked through downtown toward the University of Oregon campus to see Young Frankenstein. And in June of 1976, a little over a year before I would start classes at Oregon myself, a friend and I hopped in his VW Bug and made the five-hour drive to Eugene from our hometown in Southeastern Oregon for a weekend of movies. He had already spent a year there and was getting ready to go back for another, so he knew most of the places to go, and our first stop in town was the Mayflower, where we saw a double feature of Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Michael Ritchie’s Smile. I loved both movies, and being there made me feel like I was getting a taste of a whole new, somewhat musty, but undoubtedly wonderful world. And I did see Star Wars there during the summer of 1977, while on a student orientation visit with my family, though I can remember barely being able to concentrate on the movie for the nervousness I felt at coming to Eugene to live on my own only a couple months later.  Though it had almost 10 years of life left in it, the Mayflower already felt run-down, yet it felt like such a step up from seeing one movie a week in my quaint little hometown theater that I was willing to forgive it just about anything.

I remember a few things about the Mayflower: the ragged red curtains along the walls of the wide but not very deep auditorium; the aroma of popcorn mingling with the faint scent of disinfectant in the air; the black masking along the top and bottom of the screen forever exposed due to the absence of a retractable curtain; the glass windows that looked out on the auditorium from the halls next to the projection booth which led to the men’s and women’s restrooms, constructed so that patrons could watch the movie (and hear the muffled sound through the glass) while they stood wiggling, waiting for the occupants of the ancient single-occupancy stalls to vacate; the box office located just inside the outside breezeway (it’s visible behind the little Renault in the photo) which was always crammed with posters and other significant junk, which seemed like a pretty keen place in which to be encased, to my young eyes, anyway—those dispensing tickets might have felt differently. None of these details make the place sounds particularly endearing, but endearment isn’t something bestowed—it happens naturally, and maybe in the case of the Mayflower it was also earned.

The Mayflower was in many ways a gateway movie theater to me, and it was also where I learned to love the midnight movie. In 1977 there were no lack of film societies on campus which filled the numerous lecture halls with 16mm revival screenings of films from every genre, temperament and nation every single weekend, all in compliment to the mainstream theaters, drive-ins and homegrown art houses like Cinema 7 and the Waco Twin, which was located right off campus just behind my freshman dorm room. For a maturing movie lover who still had plenty of ground to discover, especially in the world of international cinema, such bounty was a dream come true every Friday and Saturday, and sometimes during the week too. 

But for the first year and into my sophomore year of college life, the Mayflower was running midnight movies every Saturday night, and sometimes Friday and Saturday nights, at the tail end of the era, just before the emergence of the first burst of home video popularity, when college students went out of their way to see interesting second-run fare and unusual cult sensations from every category. It was in this nondescript little cinema, after the evening showings of the main feature finished up, where I saw such staples as Clockwork Orange, A Boy and His Dog, Fellini Satyricon, Tunnelvision, The Exorcist, El Topo, Dog Day Afternoon, King of Hearts, Harold and Maude and The Graduate for the first time. Unfortunately, sometime during the fall of 1978 The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived at 11th and Alder, a phenomenon whose dominance spelled the end of the age of repertory midnight movies at the Mayflower.

This broken-down would-be palace of pictures is notable in my personal history for another reason too. It was here, just a week or two after having met on the set of National Lampoon’s Animal House which was shooting right across the street during the fall of 1977, where my soon-to-be lifelong best friend Bruce and I journeyed across campus one chilly Saturday night to take in the first of what would be probably thousands of movies we’d see together over a subsequent run of 39 years. 

The movie was, of course, Star Wars. And being flush in the hardy and heady glory of youth, once the credits started rolling on that one, we decided to go back outside and buy tickets for that night’s midnight movie selection, a slightly late-starting double feature of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky.  We stumbled out onto the sidewalk on 11th Street at around 3:30 in the morning and started the walk back across campus to our dorm rooms.  I’ve always thought, though I don’t remember if I had the thought that evening, that any friendship which starts with a 2:00 a.m. screening of Jabberwocky, followed by conversation that was surely more entertaining than the movie, could likely survive any storm, and that assumption has most assuredly proven to be true. The best friendship of my life was cemented within the none-too-sturdy walls of the old Mayflower Theater in Eugene, Oregon. For that alone, it could have been the worst theater in town— it wasn’t—and it’d still hold a special place in my heart.


Sunday, December 18, 2016


I’m guessing that you, just like most of us, have always had seasonal favorites when it comes to movies that attempt to address and evoke the spirit of Christmas. Like most from my generation, when I was a kid I learned the pleasures of perennial anticipation of Christmastime as interpreted by TV through a series of holiday specials, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and even musical variety hours where the likes of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams and Dean Martin et al would sit around sets elaborately designed to represent the ideal Christmas-decorated living room, drinking “wassail” (I’m sure that’s what was in those cups) and crooning classics of the season alongside a dazzling array of guests. (We knew we were moving into a new world of holiday cheer when David Bowie joined Bing Crosby for a Christmas duet of “Peace on Earth” and “The Little Drummer Boy” on a Christmas special in 1977.)

TV was always a dominant window onto Christmas for kids my age, and so it was when it came time to discovering, absorbing and then engraining into perennial ritual some of the Christmas–themed movies of the classic Hollywood era. I’d wager that most of us got our introduction to pictures like It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife and Christmas in Connecticut via network broadcasts or, even more likely, reliable appearances as filler on local weekend afternoon TV schedules. And for many those movies became as much a part of the annual celebration of the holiday as decorating the tree, or attending Christmas Eve church services, or pretending not to notice the Salvation Army guy clanging away outside the local supermarket.

But there are those who are always looking for additions to the Christmas canon, or simply alternatives to the usual green-and-red-lit movie fare. Maybe you’ve toured Bedford Falls with Jimmy Stewart once too often. Perhaps you’ve had one too many merry little Christmases in the company of Judy Garland and Margaret O’Sullivan. It just could be that you’re looking for something beyond watching Bruce Willis load a dead, Santa cap-clad terrorist into an elevator to deliver a very special holiday message. And maybe your particular need cannot be filled by heading to the Redbox for Krampus or Jingle All the Way or any of the apparently thousands of sentimental, often-Hallmark-produced paeans to the presumed ideal of the season. (If something like Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas is what you’re looking for, you might be well advised to go pick that one up and stop reading this article right now.)

Over the last decade or so I’ve cultivated a few new perennial favorites, some of which are actually relatively “new,” a few of which are demonstrably “old,” a couple featuring only isolated segments that call up unusual manifestations of Christmas fear and alienation, and all of which speak to my own particular wants and desires when it comes to conjuring up a little anticipatory Christmas atmosphere in the age of the 65-inch flat screen. These, then, are five of my essential Christmas classics, movies without which Christmas just wouldn’t seem as rich and rewarding and somehow reassuring. What Grinch would deny a garland-and-tinsel-encrusted movie fiend such moments of delight?

Black Christmas (1974) Director Bob Clark’s elegantly eerie, crudely effective shocker was one of the two seminal Christmas-themed shockfests (the other one is mentioned here a bit further down the page) that, when I saw them in a theater in the early ‘70s, highlighted for the first time for me the rich possibility of terror and suspense that was if not inherent, then only slightly papered over during the usual seasonal celebration. Predating John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years, Black Christmas, along with Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971), to which the initial Friday the 13th movies owe a great debt, laid out the POV-laden template for holiday-themed slashing that is still referenced by a host of forward-thinking, backward-glancing filmmakers. Here the Christmas stockings are hung by the chimney with care, along with the housekeeper and sundry other unfortunates of a sorority house besieged by an obscene phone caller who has more on his dirty mind than just getting his ornaments off. Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, John Saxon and a glorious foul-mouthed Margot Kidder head up a cast of Canadians whose indulgence of seasonal carolers is interrupted by a real killer performance, and director Clark stuffs his stocking with appearances by familiar faces like Lynne Griffin (Strange Brew, Curtains), Doug McGrath (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and Cronenberg vets Art Hindle (The Brood) and Les Carlson (Videodrome) too. The movie leaves a genuinely wintry, icy chill in the air, one you take with you when the lights come up. 

Cash On Demand (1961) Hammer Films, known for their output of classic horror films from the mid ‘50s through the mid ‘70s, produced this  little-seen, diamond-sharp gem, which in its spirit anyway amounts to the transplanting of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge into a clever cat-and-mouse bank robbery scenario. It’s , the day before Christmas Eve, the last day of business before the holiday in the Haversham branch of the City and Colonial Bank, where Mr. Fordyce (Peter Cushing), the fastidiously imperious branch manager, is roped into a scheme to help the quick-witted and ingenious Col. Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell) loot the vault, all while keeping his cowed, increasingly suspicious staff unaware of what’s happening. Director Quentin Lawrence (The Crawling Eye) stages the action like an unappreciated master, never pushing for lofty heights far beyond the material’s stage-based conceit or distracting from the strength of his actors. As the smooth criminal, Hammer regular Morell (Shadow of the Cat, The Plague of the Zombies) exudes delightfully sardonic pleasure in the ease with which he gets the straight-arrow manager under his thumb— Hepburn’s haughty assurance is effortlessly matched by Morell’s exactingly orchestrated, sinister charm, that of a Christmas ghost most terribly present. But this show belongs to Cushing, who turns in one of the most completely engaging and queasily empathetic performances of his career. Cushing, a quietly imposing actor, knows exactly how to orchestrate Fordyce’s maddening, Scrooge-esque officiousness, never letting the audience lose sight of the small man beneath that masquerade of power, until a fuller audience identification becomes necessary, inevitable. I saw this terrific picture again just hours before witnessing Cushing’s unsettling digital resurrection in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the movie proved to be the perfect proactive restorative to the memory of Cushing’s enduring inimitability. Cash on Demand has snowy, pre-Christmas atmosphere to spare, and it ends with a holiday blessing from the most unlikely of sources, all of which seal it in my personal pantheon of holiday perennials. And as an inventive, enjoyable and unexpected variation on a Christmas classic, it beats the cratchit out of Bill Murray’s Scrooged or the ghastly digititis of Robert Zemeckis’ crass CGI adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Tale (2008) More than just a spiking of the usual Hollywood holiday nog, Arnaud Desplechin’s family drama provides a welcome corrective to movies like The Family Stone and the usual sentimental shenanigans of the cinematic season while proving that facile narrative manipulations aren’t required to create a challenging and emotionally resonant experience. Abel and Junon (Jean-Paul Rousillon, Catherine Deneuve) head the turbulent Vuillards, a cultured French family still collectively reeling after the death of a child 30 years earlier, which gathers together over Christmas when Junon reveals that she has a degenerative cancer and is looking for a match within the family for a bone marrow transplant. Unlike The Family Stone, which also centers on the revelation of cancer devastating the body of its materfamilias, Desplechin undermines sentimental traps by revealing the disease right away and making the individual dramas within the group feel like painful ripples originating from the children’s relationship with their loving but matter-of-fact mother. Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the disaffected middle child who may be the only suitable bone marrow donor, has a refreshingly acerbic relationship with Junon—they openly acknowledge their disregard for each other while never betraying a wary mutual devotion. He has been banished from the family by his older sister, Elizabeth, a successful yet recessive playwright (Anne Consigny) who has a protective relationship with her own emotionally disturbed son, also a possible donor. And there is a tricky, beautifully choreographed interplay between Ivan, the youngest Vuillard (Melvil Poupaud), married to the lovely Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), and Simon (Laurent Capelluto), Ivan’s cousin, a painter who has been obsessed with Sylvia since they were all young. On paper these relationships might sound as prone to cliché as those in The Family Stone. But the magic of Desplechin’s film is in how the writer-director deftly avoids histrionics while never stinting on substantive and immediate drama, demonstrating how something likened to a Christmas spirit might reasonably extend to the everyday. All the actors are grand in ways that perfectly suit the material and Desplechin’s perspective on it, but special awe must be held for Deneuve, who convinces us of the wry detachment which informs her matronly concern and control without ever making an actorly show of it. She’s perfectly magnificent.

Remember the Night (1940) Easily the most “traditional” movie on this short list, Mitchell Leisen’s splendid comedy-drama, from a script by Preston Sturges (the last one he would write before embarking on his own career as a brilliant director of his own material), sends shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck and her courtroom prosecutor, Fred MacMurray, on a Christmas road trip to visit relatives, hers and his. When Stanwyck’s return home proves a devastating fulfillment of her worst suspicions of maternal disregard, MacMurray decides to bring her home to meet his own family, where a more resonant and meaningful holiday lays waiting. The movie beautifully balances Sturges’ peerless wit with Leisen’s talent for finding the undercurrent of pain beneath the familial pull, and part of the movie’s enduring appeal for me is not only in its evocation of a small-town Christmas experience, whether or not any such thing ever really existed anywhere than in our memories, but also in the gentle reminders woven within the story of how the joy of the Christmas holiday inevitably must give way, with melancholy, to a return to the everyday and the unavoidable responsibilities which come with it. For me Remember the Night has eclipsed the more celebrated It’s a Wonderful Life, and certainly the more atmospheric but considerably more synthetic pleasures of Stanwyck’s other generally beloved holiday entry, Christmas in Connecticut, as the quintessential Hollywood movie about the spirit of Christmas.

Tales from the Crypt (1972) Obviously not a Christmas movie, this horror anthology based on stories from the infamous EC comics series nonetheless sports one smashing holiday-themed segment, “All Through the House,” in which a murderous spouse (Joan Collins) gets her comeuppance when she crosses paths with a homicidal Santa recently escaped from a nearby mental institution. Robert Zemeckis remade this for the inaugural episode of the ‘90s HBO series (also titled Tales from the Crypt), but when seeking out this tale it’s best to insist on the original. Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…

Tommy (1975) Pete Townshend’s rock opera, as interpreted by cinematic loose cannon nonpareil Ken Russell (Lisztomania, The Music Lovers), features one segment early on in which the titular deaf, dumb and blind boy experiences—or rather remains outside of the experience of-- a typically loud, ebullient child-oriented Christmas morning celebration. His mother and her lover (Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed) rail against Tommy’s psychological absence, the traumatic result of seeing them murder his real father, and despair, with varying levels of sincerity and anger, over the spiritual vacuum within which the boy seems trapped: “Tommy doesn’t know what day it is/He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is/How can he be saved/From the eternal grave?” It’s a resonant song within the structure of the movie’s narrative, but it also stands in for the easily accessible emotional and spiritual alienation that for some is part and parcel of the holiday season.

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011) If you’re in the mood for an irreverent comic deconstruction of the various excesses and indulgences of the Christmas season, it’s hard to imagine how you could do any better than this near-brilliant third installment in the popular Harold and Kumar series, in which our heroes (John Cho, Kal Penn), distanced from each other by time, money and the encroaching responsibilities of actual adulthood, find themselves thrown back together (reluctantly at first, of course) in a desperate search throughout Manhattan for the perfect Christmas tree. Along the way they encounter a murderous Russian mobster, Jesus, Santa and, of course, their personal bête noire, Neil Patrick Harris, again playing himself in a fearless act of character self-immolation that ranks right up there with Jennifer Tilly’s “Jennifer Tilly” in Seed of Chucky and outdoes even his appearances in the previous two Harold and Kumar movies. Oh, yeah, our heroes also inadvertently introduce a toddler to the Wu-Tang Clan and the pleasures of pot and cocaine (this is not your father’s or your mother’s Christmas movie, duh) and end up being chased by a giant rampaging Claymation snowman. Outrageous to the hilt, the movie encompasses the relentless cheer, the mania, the materialism, the sentiment and, of course, the gleeful immolation of everything good and sane and delightful that Christmas stands for. And somehow it never fails to get me in the Christmas spirit because, for all its relentless irreverence, it manages to also sincerely embrace that spirit, however folded, spindled or otherwise mutilated it may have become since the sorts of Christmases celebrated in movies like Remember the Night. If you can somehow see this movie in 3D, please do— along with Piranha 3D it uses stereoptic technology to greater, and certainly funnier ends that just about any movie of the modern 3D era. But even flat A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas is still a raunchy, red-nosed, not to mention red-eyed riot, and around our house it’s a new Christmas classic too.   


Thursday, December 15, 2016


There’s no reason to expect anything but the usual tone-deaf (and deafening) crass-fest after seeing the trailer for Central Intelligence. But thankfully, although that advertising is trolling for the same audience, this Kevin Hart picture is no Ride Along or Ride Along 2. Hart plays a forensic accountant, disappointed by a routine life after his glory days as Central High BMOC, who is roped into the usual nonsensical sell-the-nuclear-codes-and-find-out-who’s-really-the-bad-guy plot by an old acquaintance, a sincere but insufferable and grossly overweight loser whom Hart once helped out of an awful public humiliation in high school. 

The joke is, that once-obese pal has, over the course of 20 years, morphed into Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, still the same sweet, naïve, wounded guy from high school, yet now sculpted (and Johnson is nothing if not sculpted) into a CIA super-agent with mad fighting and murdering skills who may be working both sides of the danger.

The movie could have taken the usual route, bullying and bashing and fast-cutting its audience with nonstop sound and fury and crude jokes. And there’s plenty of all that, to be sure. 
But Central Intelligence takes its primary cue from its big, big star— for as much shooting and shouting and general mayhem as it packs in (there’s even a nifty sequence of what Joe Bob Briggs might have called motorcycle fu), it’s a surprisingly good-natured and, relatively speaking, easy-going affair.

And that nature keeps us watching, not because we’re interested in how the plot unfolds but because Johnson, who seems to not only be up for anything but capable of anything (his magnetism and confidence echoes that of Cary Grant), maintains such a lively tension between playing against type and delivering the expected goods. It may sound strange, but it’s nice to see an action comedy where bar fights and broken fingers and unexpected car crashes (director Rawson Marshall Thurber honors the Termite Terrace way by using the wide-screen frame to spring several keen vehicular sight gags) are almost always followed by a shrug and that mile-wide Johnson grin. 

So it’s sorta perfect that we end up caring more about the movie’s epilogue, set at Hart and Johnson’s 20-year class reunion, than the shopworn action that leads up to it. The preternaturally self-assured Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way, and if that personality can so blithely rescue such a shopworn premise as the one Central Intelligence is built around, then long may he Rock.


Saturday, December 03, 2016


Much has been said and written about the receiving and processing of music as a spiritual experience, either in the religious sense, as a way of attempting a connection with God, or in terms of feeling the lift to one’s emotions, the rush of excitement that a great piece of music well-played can offer to the human body and mind. The emotional aspect of musical transportation is pretty easily accessed, on its basest and highest planes. (Just ask any fan of screamo or Yo-Yo Ma.) And there are plenty of folks who will talk to you about how contemporary Christian artists as varied as Keith Green, Becoming Saints and Andre Crouch provide an aural pathway straight to the ear of God.  For me, true incorporeal experiences with music are fairly rare. But when I hear the music of late, indisputably great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, or see him play, I often feel as though I’m entering a genuine realm of the spiritual. 

And yet, at the beginning of the documentary Jaco (2015), now streaming on Netflix and other VOD services, here this great musician sits, seen being interviewed by fellow bassist Jerry Jemmott just three years before his death in 1987, his celebrated ego still apparent in his mastery of his instrument, and in his relatively muted acceptance of Jemmott’s complimentary inquisitiveness. “You’re able to play, with real sincerity, every style of music, and not just every style, but all parts of a given piece at the same time on this one instrument, the bass,” Jemmott begins, all while we observe Pastorius’ body language begin to betray signs of a man caving in on himself, haunted by demons too inexplicable for counsel or applied chemistry. Jemmott continues: “Because of this, a lot of people have gone crazy trying to duplicate what you do, and many people have become big fans of the bass and given it a lot of attention. How do you feel about that?” Pastorius pauses, lowers his head for a moment, and then pops up with a laugh: “Give me a gig!”

At the point when this interview was conducted John Francis Anthony Pastorius III, nicknamed “Jaco” by his mother, had already risen from a middle-class life in Florida, the son of big band singer and drummer Jack Pastorius, to an association with nascent guitar great Pat Metheny in 1973, and then to an introduction to Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, who arranged the circumstances for Pastorius’s debut album in 1976, a record which was considered a breakthrough for his instrument and featured jazz heavyweights such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White and Hubert Laws, among several others. By the time Pastorius began his run with Weather Report in 1976, he was widely considered, particularly by himself, as the greatest bass player in the world, and continued working with other artists like Metheny, Joni Mitchell and Al Di Meola while laying the foundation for the expansion of his own solo career.

Yet by the time he sat down to talk with Jemmott for that television interview Pastorius had already seen record company corruption and resistance to his brilliant solo album Word of Mouth morph into out-and-out anger from the suits over his refusal to allow himself to be sculpted into just another pop jazz fusion artist. The drugs and alcohol he had always eschewed in the early stages of his career were now routine indulgences and had undoubtedly contributed to his increasingly destabilized mental health, and by the time he self-deprecatingly answered Jemmott’s question his erratic behavior on and off stage had contributed to a situation where the greatest bass player in the world could not find a job. At the time of the interview, scrambling for work, battling bipolar disorder (for which he was hospitalized for a year) and living off the occasionally beneficial remnants of his reputation, Jaco Pastorius, who singlehandedly reinvented what the bass guitar could do, was a year or so away from homelessness, living in a city park, and only a few years more removed from a tragic, violent death.

The film about Pastorius, directed by Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) and documentary editor Paul Marchand (Good Hair, The 50-Year Argument), details the meteoric ascent and ignominious crumbling of its subject’s life largely in familiar, talking-heads fashion. Those heads—among them Jemmott, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, Joni Mitchell and Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine— recognize the disturbing elements of Pastorius’ ego and some of his choices while indulging the usual sort of praise and secondhand confirmation of the unassailable talent of the man they’ve been gathered to celebrate. In its form, the documentary doesn’t find a correlative in the language of film to translate and illuminate the musician’s mastery, or especially his demons. Thankfully, however, Kijak and Marchand’s relatively conservative approach is free of the sensationalistic desire to wallow in grim details of their subject’s decline. They trust the eloquence, the passion, the genuine sadness of the people who care to honestly remember who Pastorius was, what his music meant.

What makes Jaco special, transporting, is Pastorius himself. The film features a treasure chest’s worth of archival footage of Pastorius creating and expressing music, as well as interacting with family and his peers, in moments of triumph, exhaustion and vulnerability. Those eyes, guarded and haunted in moments of self-reflection, lose their furtiveness in performance, and Pastorius’s slight frame takes on a tensile, almost organic unity with his instrument as he wields it on stage. As this brilliant musician runs his fingers along the neck of his fretless bass, sliding and massaging and plucking notes and chords from his electric instrument and coaxing it into making sounds that are rooted in the familiarity of an upright acoustic bass yet somehow new, otherworldly, untethered by the usual expectations, set free to roam past the usual boundaries, it’s easy to believe, as I always have when listening to the music he made, that no one else could ever do what he did. (It’s somewhat shocking, and heartening, to see a close-up late in the film of fingers scampering across another fretless bass, liberating the sort of glorious arrangement of tone and emboldened, flirtatious, difficult melody that could only be Jaco, which pulls back to reveal  the player is actually Jaco’s son, Felix.)

The music created by the merging of Jaco Pastorius with a bass guitar is among the only music I’ve ever heard which can make me begin to understand what a burdened soul suddenly shorn of unreasonable gravity might feel as it begins to float free. What’s left behind is not so much corporeal reality as the limiting expectations of what jazz, rock, classical, even country—all genres for which Pastorius professes love in the film—can ultimately become when given over to genius. The music Pastorius made joyfully reflects both the depth of his exploratory ambition and the arrogance necessary to sustain that ambition, while the sad circumstances of his shortened life insistently round out the warm buzz and staccato chord formations which emanate with no lack of mystery from his fingerboard. To its everlasting credit, Jaco recognizes the pain and blessedly indulges our desire to experience the fusion of all those warring elements within Pastorius’ music at its peak, to feel our collective souls, if only for the moment, fly, fly away, the beneficiaries of Pastorius’s troubled, transcendent mastery.


Sunday, November 20, 2016


Thanksgiving. After the past year of tumult, anger and divisiveness we’ve experienced in this country and around the world, to say nothing of the past couple of weeks, the concepts of thankfulness and appreciation may seem somewhat more distant and difficult to access than they might otherwise normally be. At any rate, Thanksgiving Day itself seems of late to be more about gorging on gigantic meals and, more distressingly, rampant consumerism, as Black Friday ever threatens to overtake the spirit of the day, and even the day itself—how many more seasons before it officially becomes Black Thursday?

Yet here we are, a few days before that very American occasion inspired by the desire to show our gratitude for our many blessings. So in the hope of reclaiming some of the original intent of our national holiday, I’d like to send out some brief thoughts on a few of the things I’m most grateful for as Thanksgiving Day draws near. Some of them may seem obvious, or even trivial or silly, but they’re all on my mind and my heart right now, the things that have made my life richer, more interesting, happier. I don’t need an official day to acknowledge them, but since I have one, here’s a list of a few of the things I’m thankful for as the trying and terrible year of 2016 comes to a close, in no particular order of significance.

I’m grateful for the fact that Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame announcer who retired this year after calling 67 seasons of Dodgers baseball, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and while that honor still retains any meaning. Just last week Scully won the MLB Call of the Year award for his description of the walk-off home run, hit by Dodger journeyman Charlie Culbertson, which sealed the team’s fourth-straight National League division win. I’m grateful not only for the memories conjured by Scully over the years, but also for the privilege of being able to be at some of the games he called, even listening to him on the radio I brought with me into the stadium, and for being able to be there on his last weekend at Dodger Stadium for Vin Scully Appreciation Night, to see him get the love and honor he so richly deserved.


I’m grateful for Rio Bravo, a movie film critic Charles Taylor recently described as a movie "in which people who have been undervalued come together to defeat a murderous thug who believes his power gives him the right to ignore the law." He wrote that early on Election Day, imagining, as many of us did, the result of the voting would be somewhat different than it ended up.


I’m grateful for Filmstruck, the brand-new streaming channel for film lovers created through a collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection. Criterion’s entire streaming library will be available, as well as new titles premiering every week and a rotating schedule of programs curated by the likes of the eminent and surpassingly intelligent film critic Michael Sragow. And speaking of TCM, I’m grateful that, after three or so years in the wilderness, I’m finally able to afford to have that essential channel back on my big screen at home. The DVR is already feeling the strain.


I’m grateful for the continuing opportunities for movie fans in cities like New York, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, and anywhere it might be happening, to see revival, repertory, alternative cinema on the big screen. May we here in Los Angeles never take for granted the American Cinematheque (at the Egyptian and Aero Theaters), the New Beverly Cinema, the Cinefamily and the Art Theater in Long Beach, as well as the multiple chances we have to attend and support rich and broadly scaled festivals year round. Just one treat coming next month: the 40th anniversary screening of the 1976 King Kong is coming to the Aero on December 10, with a discussion featuring legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, the movie’s cinematographer Richard Kline and others, moderated by the creator of Chucky the Killer Doll, writer-director Don Mancini.


I’m grateful for Johnny Cash and June Carter’s recording of “If I Were a Carpenter.”


I’m grateful for Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy, probably the most encyclopedic and insightful documentary we’re ever going to get on the vast influence and history of Italian film. I’m currently trying to learn Italian (my daughter and I are taking a class together), and I can’t wait to dig into this director’s very personal enthusiasms once again, as a way of enriching my own experience with the language.


I’m grateful for Shelley Duvall, God bless her, for Suzanne, for Ida Coyle, for Keechie and L.A. Joan and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, for Pam (Alvy Singer’s Dylan-obsessed date), for Millie Lamoreaux and Wendy Torrance and, most especially, for Olive Oyl. May she get the medical treatment she needs, and the respectful treatment at the hands of the media she deserves.


I’m grateful for the impulse to turn away from the usual outlets of alarm and cynicism on talk radio, and the incessant “analysis” of 24-hour TV news, and spend some time with Ernestine Anderson and Charlie Parker and Count Basie and the like on KJazz 88.1 FM while I’m in my car. I turned it on a few days ago as was treated to John Williams’ “Swing, Swing, Swing,” from his soaring and brilliant 1941 score—this is the tune played during the movie’s justly celebrated USO dance sequence. Any radio station which plays that without being asked gets my tune-in.


I’m grateful for the Hammer, perhaps my favorite pizza ever, at Track Town Pizza in Eugene, Oregon. It’s not the reason I come to visit my old University of Oregon hometown, but when I’m there a stop at this joint has become absolutely required.


I’m grateful for The Vista Theater in East Hollywood. It’s been at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards for around for 80 years or so, on or near the sites where some of the first and greatest silent films in Hollywood history (Intolerance, anyone?) were made. These days just about every big-ass blockbuster on the schedule gets at least a week’s play here, which means my daughters and I end up here a lot, in our favorite seats-- center, a third of the auditorium back from the screen. Some of the best sound and picture in the city, a beautifully maintained art deco interior (Egyptian themed), with a curtain that gets pulled back and everything, all for about six to ten dollars cheaper (depending on when you attend) than what you’d pay at one of the reserved seat, luxury showcases in town, like the Arclight or the Landmark in West Los Angeles.

And your ticket is likely to be torn by the theater’s manager, Victor Martinez, who dresses up like the main character of the film he’s showing and always poses for pictures for before sending you inside. (“Enjoy my movie!”) We’ve been welcomed by the likes of Rorschach (Watchmen), Harry Potter, Matt Damon’s astronaut-suited character from The Martian and, most recently, Doctor Strange. Now, that’s entertainment!


I’m grateful that it seems as though “autumn” is finally settling on Southern California, if only in drips and drops. The clouds are out in force this morning as I write, always a solid source for inspiration, and the last few nights I’ve actually been cold when I’ve gone to bed, all the better for utilizing every bit of cover.


I’m grateful for moments like missing the company of my eldest daughter, then stepping out into the morning after a movie, as I did yesterday, to hear music from Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather, music she loves which has only caused it to gain in significance for me, wafting over the open courtyard of the theater entrance.


I’m grateful after the free-floating disillusionment caused by the election last week that strangers can and will still talk to each other on the street. A short conversation I had yesterday with a woman, who did not look or dress like me or the women in my family, while she played with her six-month-old baby outside a bookstore in Pasadena, did wonders to restore my faith in such simple pleasures, and that such simple pleasures were still possible.


I’m grateful for the return of film critic Jim Emerson as an online presence, if only right now on Facebook. Jim has had health issues related to his heart and had recently been hospitalized. He’s home now, convalescing under the care of doctors and his beloved German shepherd Lolita, and though he’s not had the energy or ability to see many movies, his political voice has found fire again and his postings on Facebook have been full of the usual Emersonian clarity, stimulating logic and, as appropriate, righteous anger and disbelief. Jim has been instrumental in the development of my own writing and my adventures in critical thinking, and I’m so glad to be able to read his impressions of the world once again. It may sound odd, but Jim is probably the best friend I’ve never actually met, and I hope someday very soon we’ll get to shake hands in 3D.


I’m grateful for the eloquent understatement of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of the three movies I saw yesterday which feel so much like absolutely vital movies of the moment that the cumulative effect of seeing them all together left me shaken and overwhelmed. It’s a movie which illustrates, among many other things, how the gaining of freedoms taken for granted by many these days was hard-fought, freedoms which might now, despite recent progress, again be in jeopardy for another long-marginalized community. (More on those other two in a second.)
Nichols dares to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia who married in 1958 and spent the next nine years as the subject of persecution and exile before becoming the nexus of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 federal ruling that abolished anti-miscegenation laws nationwide, with spellbinding, hushed confidence. And naturally the movie is being dinged by some for not being dramatic enough. But there’s enough drama for two or three movies in the way Ruth Negga, as Mildred, draws a hesitant breath while reticently considering the family she’ll have to leave to maintain her new one, or the way Joel Edgerton’s Richard preserves his dignity while furrowing his brow and deflecting his gaze from figures of authority, stealing a microsecond’s glance before resuming a position of deference.

never sacrifices the integrity of character for the momentary juice of effect, and despite the seductive call of the typical Hollywood take on true-life drama, it never becomes about big moments, or self-righteous expressions, or even the resolution of the courtroom decision as it is been delivered. I kept thinking how often important stories like these have been butchered and falsified, their focus and weight shifted from the real (usually non-white) protagonists to peripheral figures of (white) authority like savior cops, lawyers and government agents at the hands of directors like Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning), and I was made even more grateful for Jeff Nichols’ approach, which exudes gentleness and a basic honor he recognizes in the characters and transfers to his film.

I’m also grateful for the quiet purposefulness of Arrival, which managed to keep me riveted with a suspenseful tale built not around a laser-blazin’ alien invasion, but instead a visitation in which the interpretation of language, in this case one that has never been heard, seen or used by humans before, is the source of the drama. As one of the characters in the film observes, learning a foreign language requires your brain to become rewired; it causes you to rethink the way you see the world and the way you communicate within it. This has certainly been my experience as I go through the earliest stages of learning Italian. When you suddenly “understand” the words and the way they function together in a sentence to suddenly expand meaning and create context, the experience can be similar to what happens in Arrival; “seeing”/feeling the Italian (or whatever language) transmogrify into something fluid, like alien text suspended in a smoky atmosphere, something that can, in a rudimentary way, be understood. 
Director Denis Villeneuve structures his movie as a series of puzzle pieces which build on each other until we see not what we think we’re seeing, but what actually is—a mode of experience we weren’t privy to before which, in its own way, resembles decoding language. This is old-school science fiction based on ideas rather than sensation, and it’s a visual and philosophical beauty. The movie insists that words are important, that they do matter, and articulates how the context in which they are spoken can manipulate, alter and even hinder understanding. As we go through the looking glass into Trumplandia,
Arrival caused me to exult in the possibilities of language and simultaneously despair over how often those possibilities, through misuse and ignorance, can be overwhelmed by fear or stagnation, or be discarded altogether.


And I’m grateful for the fearless narrative thrust of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, the Dutch director’s first movie in over four years and the first to see an American release since 2006’s Black Book. The movie begins with a horrifying sexual assault (heard, but not seen), followed by the inexplicably matter-of-fact response of the victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert in perhaps a career-best performance). Why does she silently sweep up the broken glass from the floor where the assault took place, and then take a bath, rather than report the crime? It’s behavior like this that has driven some viewers to distraction, but even the most inexplicable responses in Elle begin to resonate with psychological acuity as the details of Michele’s world, and more specifically her relationships with the men in her life, begin to accumulate. The movie is the last thing from a position paper—it’s an incredibly tense character thriller that had me on edge for the entirety of its running time—but once again, with almost providential timing it serves notice on the squirmy misogynistic contempt currently moving from a subterranean position to overt expression in our culture, and how one female response to it might be more complicated than could easily fit as a slogan on a bumper sticker. Elle certainly means to provoke, but that provocation isn’t perverse, it’s subtly, artfully pointed, and as such it’s definitely of a piece within the work of the man who made Starship Troopers and Showgirls.


Finally, I am of course grateful for the apparently bottomless love of my wife, the happiness of my two daughters, the (sometimes) quiet company of our three cats, and all the cherished people with whom I have the privilege of interacting every day on social media and in my non-virtual life. And I am of course grateful to Joe Dante and Charlie Largent for allowing me free rein in this space each and every week. I do not take any of this for granted, and I want you all of the above to know how much your continued presence in my life means to me, my state of mind and my everyday survival. Happy Thanksgiving.